To Jesus Through Mary at Christmas: The Visitation

ADVENT RETREAT: The Visitation of Elizabeth by Mary is a powerful prolife witness

Frans Francken (1581-1642), “The Visitation,” St. Paul’s Church, Antwerp, Belgium
Frans Francken (1581-1642), “The Visitation,” St. Paul’s Church, Antwerp, Belgium (photo: Renata Sedmakova / Shutterstock)

As we continue to travel toward Christmas to Jesus through Mary — Ad Jesum per Mariam — the Church takes us on a slight detour this week. On Dec. 8, we observe the holy day of obligation, the Immaculate Conception.

Though we spent last week talking about the conception of Jesus — which we celebrate on the Solemnity of the Annunciation on March 25 — the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception affirms that Mary, though conceived of human parents (traditionally named Joachim and Anna) was free of sin and attachment to sin from the first moment of her existence, her conception. Sin and its drag effects had no effect on her life.

Last week, as we journeyed toward Christmas, we spoke about how it all began, when Mary conceived. The Gospels are relatively sparing about what they tell us about Jesus’ post-natal life. One thing we do know is that Mary went to visit her cousin, Elizabeth: hence, the Visitation.

Already upon receiving Gabriel’s invitation to become the Mother of Jesus, Mary already learned that “Elizabeth, your relative, has also conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called barren: for nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:36-37).

From the context, it’s clear that this is news to Mary. Remember, there’s no internet, telephone or postal service.

For Luke, the context is also the message. Just as we said last week, the Holy Spirit is “Lord and Giver of Life” to every child, because no human being can make a soul. Mary already senses there is something unique about her pregnancy, thanks to God. Gabriel reminds her how God is active in every life. Telling Mary about Elizabeth was not just a “hey, by the way, did you hear …”

In her “old age,” Elizabeth is going to have a baby. Unlike our world, whose secular beatitude is “blessed are the barren,” Elizabeth and Zechariah surely must have tried a long time unsuccessfully to have a child. In ancient Israel, to have a child was a sign of God’s blessing. That’s why, even in her “old age,” Elizabeth sees her conception of John the Baptist not just as God blessing her but of removing a “reproach” from her. And no doubt that both she and Mary, Daughter Zion, would have looked at the elderly Elizabeth and seen echoes of Israel’s patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah, blessed by God with Isaac in their old age (Genesis 18:1-15, where Abraham’s three visitors who tell him that good news are arguably the three persons of the Blessed Trinity).

Mary learned from Gabriel that Elizabeth is in her sixth month. Mary resolves to go to help her “kinswoman.” No doubt such familial assistance would have been normal and, as a young woman, Mary would have had the time to help.

But let’s also remember: Mary herself is in her first trimester. Nazareth to Ein Karem is about 90 miles, on foot or donkey. Mary herself is in maternal need, yet she puts her own needs and comfort aside to help somebody else.

No doubt the stay also afforded Mary time to “contemplate all these things in her heart.” Perhaps Joseph’s first reactions have been one of confusion. Perhaps he changed toward her. Perhaps she sensed that her assumptions about her life and future might be put to the test or even vanish. It was all a new challenge. Mary trusted God, but that doesn’t mean she didn’t have questions. Maybe Zechariah, a priest of the Temple, could help her. Maybe Elizabeth, whose own pregnancy was out of the ordinary, could help her. Could God have been pointing her there when his angel broached the Good News?

Again, Mary is aware that she’s not in control, that God is, and that she trusts him. By pure human calculation, she’s either incredibly full of faith or incredibly naïve. The Bible’s answer is clear: “Wisdom is justified by her children” (Matthew 11:19) — in this case, literally John and Jesus.

Luke recounts a most miraculous encounter between mothers and children. Though Mary has come to help Elizabeth, Elizabeth’s greeting testifies to Mary and her Child’s relationship to God: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” Elizabeth recognizes she has received two visitors. Her greeting, immortalized in the “Hail Mary,” does not say, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is your clump of cells!” The “Hail Mary” is among the very first prayers every Catholic learns. No honest Catholic can say the Ave Maria and defend the “choice” of abortion.

But Elizabeth just doesn’t speak for herself: she gives her child voice. “As soon as your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy” (Luke 1:44). Mary’s greeting does not quicken Elizabeth’s “product of conception.” The Christian message of what — rather who — is in the womb is crystal clear.

Two further notes:

  • Elizabeth reassures Mary from the start that “blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her! (1:45). This is clearly divine inspiration, because the cousins have just met and not yet exchanged womanly confidences, yet Elizabeth praises Mary for her trust in God about this blessing.
  • In expressing her own faith and giving voice to John, Elizabeth speaks for her household, because Zechariah is mute, having doubted that God’s plans for his son could fit into the natural order of things (see 1:18-20).

The Visitation of Elizabeth by Mary is a powerful prolife witness, not just for what happens at their first encounter, but because of the support for a pregnant woman it demonstrates. Mary didn’t go to Ein Karem to be honored. She went to work. She went to help. The reversal of Roe is a God-sent legal victory, but it must be accompanied by the same readiness to help mothers in need that Mary — herself a mother — demonstrates.

This Advent, what will you do to support that kind of help? Crisis pregnancy centers are under attack around America, many law enforcement agencies are taking these attacks lightly, and plenty of politicians want to close these alternatives to abortuaries down. How will you be a Mary this Advent to help mothers in need of your help?

You can, of course, make a donation, and that’s good. But rebuilding a culture of life in a post-Roe landscape will be a long and tough slog. Can you commit some time — often more precious to people than money – to those crisis pregnancy centers?

What is your parish doing to help pregnant women in need? I don’t envision a full-blown crisis pregnancy center in every parish (though that would be wonderful) but a mother in need should be able to turn to any Catholic parish and get at least the immediate help she needs to protect her child and herself.

Amy Ford’s Help Her to Be Brave, though written from a Protestant perspective, is chock full of hundreds of concrete ideas and suggestions that all Christians can use to make every church a sanctuary for life, an Ein Karem for mothers who need a visitation. Can your Advent resolution, extending beyond Advent, be making your parish such an Ein Karem?

The Gospel makes the lapidary statement that “Mary stayed with Elizabeth about three months, then returned home” (1:56). Can we assume that she stayed through John’s birth? It seems only logical: having come to help her kinswoman, would she have left before the most important moment? And had she stayed, would she not be among those “neighbors and relatives” who shared Elizabeth’s joy when she gave birth to John? And would her own faith have not been sustained against the unknown awaiting her when she witnessed the unloosing of Zechariah’s tongue and his exaltation of God for his little boy, events that filled “people with awe throughout the whole hill country of Judea?” (Luke 1:65-66).

Do we not need to kindle such awe in our friends and neighbors toward every child conceived into this world? Should our response to the mystery of God’s gift of life not be what the simple people of Judea asked, “’What then is this child going to be?’ For the Lord’s hand was upon him” (Luke 1:66).

Because the Lord’s hand is on every child.